COMPSTAT 2004, 16th Symposium of IASC
PRAGUE, August 23-27, 2004


Prague's musical life can be studied from the 11th century when the first notated manuscripts appeared, recording Christian liturgical music. The most valuable record of that time is the Czech religious folk song Lord, pour out Your love on us. Other songs in a similar vein gradually took their place alongside it. The rule of Emperor Charles IV marked the first great period in the musical life of Prague. At the beginning of the 15th century, the time of the revolutionary Hussite movement, the militant song Rise up, Rise up, Great Town of Prague, was born. Collections of one-voice and multi-voice songs, graduals, were brought out in Prague. They were used by choral ensembles, brotherhoods, set up in towns along the lines of craft guilds. Illustrated volumes of these brotherhoods at the Churches of St. Gall and St. Michael have survived.

At the turn of the I6th and 17th centuries the court orchestra of Emperor Rudolph II attained European fame. It was headed by Phillippus do Monte, and Carolus Luython also worked with it. The orchestra performed the compositions of foreign and domestic authors; among the leading Czech composers of the time was Krystof Harant of Polzice. On November 27, 1627, Prague made the acquaintance of a new musical genre, the Italian opera, through the pastoral comedy of G. B. Bucmamente. Of the graduals issued in Prague during the 17th century, the volume of V. K. Holan Rovensky, of 1693, was particularly important for the formation of new stylistic elements of early baroque. A specific feature of Prague's musical life in the 18th century was the so-called Musica Navalis: during May celebrations to honour the leading saint of the region, Jan Nepomucky, decorated boats sailing majestically along the Vltava River resounded with the music of song and instrumental ensembles. The culminating point of this period were the Prague celebrations of the coronation of Charles VI as King of Bohemia, in August and September 1723. During this musical festival of European importance, the coronation opera Costanza a Fortezza by Johann Joseph Fux was performed, along with a big vocal-instrumental work by Jan Dismas Zelenka - Sub plea pacis et palma virtutis, and a serenade by Francesco Conti: converts were given "on the flute and other instruments"; during dinner, "singing interspersed with music" was heard.

Shortly after the coronation, the opera company of Venetian Antonio Denzi arrived in Prague. It performed for ten years in the Prague theatre of Count Sporck; it gave some 50 musical-dramatic works, including the opera Praga Nascente da Libussa e Primislao (Prague, founded by the legendary Czech Princess Libuse and her husband Premysl). After Denzi, several Italian impressarios came to Prague in turn. At the end of the century productions were staged in the newly built theatre (first known as the Theatre of Count Nostic, then the Estates Theatre, then the Tyl Theatre, and today the Estates Theatre again); here, on October 29, 1787, the premiere of W. A. Mozart's Don Giovannitook place. Shortly afterwards, a pianist who was given extraordinary acclaim for the performance of his own works and the compositions of others - Ludwig van Beethoven -appeared at the Prague concert hall in Konviktska Street.

From the beginning of the 19th century, institutions were formed in Prague which organized public concerts. First there was the Society of Musical Artists, founded in 1803, then the conservatory (from 1811), and somewhat later the Cecilia Society and the so-called Sophia Academy. A number of great composers visited Prague after Mozart and Beethoven, as well as outstanding performing artists, including Carl Maria Weber (he also held the post of opera director and was married in Prague), Fryderyk Chopin (he did not concertize in Prague, but left here the notation of a mazurka), Nicollo Paganini, Franz List in particular, Hector Berlioz and Richard Wagner.

Czech opera made its appearance in Prague very timidly at first (Frantisek Skroup's opera The Tinker, 1826): in the revolutionary year 1848 the opera of Jan Bedrich Knittl, Bianca and Giuseppe, played a role in Prague similar to Auber's Mute of Portice, in Brussels. In the second half of the 18th century there was a powerful choral singing movement: an important act was the establishment of the Prague choral society Hlahol. At the same time the Provisional Theatre was built and opened, the society of Czech artists, men of letters and musicians was formed, known as the Arts Society (1863). A contest launched by Count Jan Harrach for an original Czech opera singled out for praise B. Smetana's Brandenburgs in Bohemia. Shortly afterwards, this was followed up by other operas of the same composer - the Bartered Bride and Dalibor. The rapid development of musical life in the capital of Bohemia attracted more visitors to Prague: Mily Balakirev and Piotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky from Russia, Stanislav Moniuszko from Poland, and Camille Saint-Saens from France. The National Theatre was opened on June 11, 1881, with a production of B. Smetana's opera Libuse. Three months later the building was destroyed by fire, but by dint of tremendous effort by the whole nation it was rebuilt within two years. The building of the House of Creative and Musical Art, called the Rudolfinum, gave Prague concert life a dignified home. The Czech Society for Chamber Music and the Czech Philharmonic orchestra were also established about this time. A high point in Prague and Czech musical life came about at the turn of the 20th century with the First Czech Music Festival, held in Prague in the Industrial Palace from April 3 to 5, 1904. Three thousand members of choral ensembles from Bohemia, Moravia and Silesia came together: with them, the expanded orchestra of the Czech Philharmonic played the works of B. Smetana, A. Dvorak , and other leading Czech composers. The construction of the Municipal House with its Smetana Hall at the beginning of the 20th century helped a lot to the improvement of the music life in Prague. During the First World War, Leos Janacek's opera, Jenufa had its Prague premiere (May 26, 1916).

After the war ended, Prague became the capital of independent Czechoslovakia. In a short while its concert halls were opened to guests of international music festivals held in 1924 and 1925. The Mozart Society was formed, acquired the Bertramka villa, the place where W. A. Mozart stayed while in Prague, and opened it to the public. During the first republic, many buildings were constructed in Prague serving public needs, but not a single theatre or concert hall among them. Musical institutions considered themselves particularly lucky if they found a place suitable for their activities: for instance, the summer palace of Michna of Vacin, called Amerika, was opened in 1932 as the A. Dvorak's Museum , and four years later the Bedrich Smetana Society made public its collection in the Smetana Museum, adapted from a building of the Old Town waterworks.

During the Second World War, music addressed Prague audiences in overcrowded concert halls: it provided comfort and strengthened hope. In the studios of composers, anti-war and anti-fascist works were born, recalling the famous national past and permeated with a spirit of the victorious future.

After the war, Prague was gradually converted into the metropolis of a socialist country. The nationalisation laws, the abolition of private enterprise, the new organisation of the educational system, and many other measures, also had an effect on musical culture. In 1949, the Union of Czechoslovak Composers was born; the international music festival Prague Spring, held since 1946 in May, began to assume the function of an outstanding meeting place for artists from socialist countries and progressive musicians from the capitalist world. The establishment of new institutions and continuation of traditional activities on new foundations influenced the picture of Prague's musical life. Soon after the war, Rudolfinum was returned to its original purpose, the Union of Composers made its headquarters at Waldstenstein Square, the Czech Musical Fund replaced the Arts Society in the house at Arts Society Square in the Lesser Town, and in Opletal street the Theatre of Music was opened. It became traditional to mark the contributions of B. Smetana and A. Dvorak to Czech music on the anniversary of their death, at Vysehrad Cemetery, the resting place of many artists who worked for our national musical culture. The conception of a Museum of Czech Music was completed in 1976. At the foot of the bridge that spans the Nusle Valley stands the newly built Palace of Culture, now a Congress Center, whose halls are also used for concerts.

Following: J. Vsetecka and J. Berkovec, Praga Musicopolis Europae, Editio Supraphon, Prague, 1983